Almost 10 years after Julie Otsuka made her spectacular literary debut with When the Emperor Was Divine, I remain even more convinced that Emperor is the best book I’ve ever read about the Japanese American imprisonment during World War II. Truth be told, Emperor ranks so high on my personal list of all-time revered titles that I felt unable to read Otsuka’s latest for many months; the thought that I might have another near-decade to wait for her next title haunts me still.
The Buddha in the Attic – recently named a 2011 National Book Award finalist – is another masterpiece. Otsuka distills nearly a half century of history into 129 exquisite pages of powerful intensity; like the very best poetry, every page has been reduced to the most essential details, moments, phrases, memories. Using a chorus-like ‘we,’ Otsuka’s eight spare chapters are chant-like revelations of the Japanese American experience.
“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” Otsuka begins, capturing Japanese picture brides early in the last century, traveling to the other side of the world to join husbands they have only seen in photographs. Some are as young as 14, still girls, filled with hope and expectation for building a new life with prosperous young men. What awaits at the end of their long journey is a shocking reality: “… we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were.” The women have married 20-year-old photographs, fallen for beautiful promises written by someone else, bet their lives on complete strangers full of desperate lies.
The lives of these women in a harsh new world proves difficult, even fatal. They join their husbands out in the back-wrenching fields, and many endure nightly assaults. They will clean other people’s houses, raise other people’s children. Those who can will learn other people’s language, learn to eat other people’s food. Most will have children of their own – some will live beyond infancy, some will survive to give their parents great joy, others only heartbreak. The lucky will have their own homes, others will always live at the mercy of others. Finally, when the War comes and they are branded by their government as the enemy, most will go – in disbelief – without protest.
Once they are gone, Otsuka uses the final chapter to brilliantly, astonishingly flip the ‘us vs. them’ paradigm. Suddenly, “we” are the ‘real’ Americans who were not rounded up, who were not imprisoned for no other reason that looking like the enemy: some are “more than a little relieved to see the Japanese go,” although some of our younger children have nightmares having abruptly lost their classmates and friends. But now that they are gone, we finally take the time to read the fine print on the tattered relocation notices, although “what it was, exactly, that these instructions spelled out, none of us can clearly recall.” Oh, the consequences of selective amnesia …
Post-9/11, Buddha is both historical reminder and contemporary warning of the indelible effects of a ’you’re either with us or against us’-polarized world. Read and take heed.
Tidbit: On March 26, 2012, Buddha deservedly won the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Yipppeeee indeed!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult